Among other things, India has been known to the world as a country of snake charmers. However, do we know who, among us Indians, are closest to snakes? While most of us would flee at the very sight of a snake without even waiting to check whether it’s venomous or not, catching reptiles is all part of a day’s work for the Irulas. The Irulas are one of India’s oldest indigenous communities, who live along the north-eastern coast of the state of Tamil Nadu.
Their skin colour (the word ‘Irula’ is derived from the Tamil word for darkness) often goes against them when they look for jobs in a society that is still largely racist. Irula children traditionally accompanied their parents into the forest and gained an enormous amount of tacit knowledge about plants, animals, herbal medicine and snakes. Generations of catching snakes and rodents have equipped the Irulas with an expert understanding of these creatures which baffles even seasoned modern experts.
Until 1972, they helped catch snakes for traders, who would kill snakes for their skin. With the Wildlife Protection Act which was introduced in 1972, snake hunting became illegal and the livelihood of Irulas was severely affected. As hunter-gatherers, the Irulas were automatically considered poachers by government officials. They were also viewed with suspicion by other communities in the region.
Herpetologist Romulus Whitaker has worked with them for about 50 years. In 1978, Whitaker helped set up a collective in Vadanemmeli, a small coastal village on the outskirts of Chennai, called the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society that made use of the amazing snake-catching skills of Irulas. The venom supplied by the cooperative is used by six companies across India to generate anti-venom for treating snakebites. Venom is extracted from the snakes once a week and after a month, the snakes are tagged and released in the forest.
India has the world’s highest number of deaths from snake bites, wherein about 50,000 people succumb to snake bites every year. This makes the work and contribution of Irulas even more critical and valuable. Whitaker and his wife Janaki Lenin are trying to find a system that will allow the Irulas to retain their traditional skills while also pursuing a formal education in school.
The Irulas got worldwide recognition in 2017, when two members of the Irula tribe, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, were commissioned to work in the USA to help capture Burmese pythons (an invasive species) in the Key Largo region in the Florida Keys. They also travelled to Thailand to help researchers there implant radio transmitters for their study and ended up catching two king cobras.
Masi and Vadivel may also be the last generation of Irulas with this impressive understanding of the reptiles. We may lose a whole community’s knowledge about snakes because their skills were not valued in ‘mainstream’ society. Snakes are often just killed because they exist and we are terrified of them harming us. While most of us urban dwellers would never encounter a snake in our backyard, we must remember that the snake is only interested in survival. And us humans are not its food. So technically, we have no reason to harm it. We must, however, protect the Irulas who protect snakes, so that nature can maintain its ecological balance.
About the author: Aditi Patil is currently employed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as a young professional. With a Masters in Development Studies, she has previously worked on community-conservation research projects with WWF-India, Columbia University, and the Gujarat Forest Department.